Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are quite literally the rising star of consumer electronics. If you don’t own a drone yourself, then you probably know someone else who does. Drones have been snapped up by businesses as well as consumers, finding applications in construction, surveillance, defence, agriculture and retail. Amazon’s Prime Air service has expanded their potential even further by sending UAVs to complete deliveries. In future, courier drones could bring you any small to medium package from a pizza to another drone. . . but what else can the useful little flying machines do that you haven’t already heard about?
1. Humanitarian relief
Zipline, a Silicon Valley start up, is delivering something quite unorthodox via UAVs – blood. At the Kabgayi District Hospital in Rwanda, getting hold of blood for transfusions can be both difficult and time consuming, involving round trips of three to four hours. In a medical emergency, that’s simply too slow. However, Zipline drones can make the journey in just 15 minutes. The company plans to set up similar delivery systems in 21 facilities. The ability of drones to drop off vital medical supplies could help to alleviate suffering in humanitarian crises and areas hit by natural disasters. In fact, engineer Nigel Gifford is currently in the process of designing an edible drone for these situations.
2. 3D mapping
One of the main consumer uses for drone technology is capturing clear, aerial photos. Add CAD design and a 3D printer, and you can turn these stills into dynamic 3D maps. This clearly has industry wide uses in power plants, factories, construction sites, hospitals. . . the list goes on. One of the less mainstream options creating 3D maps for large scale events, making sure that festival arenas can handle a certain crowd size, for instance. Drone enabled 3D mapping has also contributed to OpenStreetMap, a consumer created map of the world.
Nonny de la Peña is famous for pioneering virtual journalism, which transports the audience to a specific location to watch the events of a news story unfold. This has transformed reporting, making it far more active and immersive. Instead of passive spectators, users can become participants. The ability to capture a whole scene is also encouraging transparency in the news. However, developing a VR experience isn’t cheap, and it definitely isn’t instantaneous. With a camera equipped drone, however, these problems are removed. UAVs can stealthily capture entire landscapes, therefore offering a complete view of a situation. The photographs or videos can then be sent to reporters and broadcasters in real time. This application is under development at the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
4. Law enforcement
If drones can capture information for entire landscapes, they can be used to keep track of people too. Even with CCTV footage, it can be hard to pin down a criminal. Image resolution and camera blind spots can make all the difference in a court of law. It might sound Orwellian, but if drones could monitor the population from a distance, it would be far easier to locate law breakers. Think of them as flying security cameras – nothing to worry about or ethical dilemma?
5. Tracking the weather
If you’ve ever watched the quintessentially nineties film Twister, you’ll know that gathering data about tornados is far from easy. Sending drones into storms is a much safer alternative that doesn’t require human researchers to put their lives at risk. NASA’s five year Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3) aims to better understand hurricane formation by sending powerful UAVs into compromising weather. The Global Hawk drones used for the project are more robust than regular models, with a flight range of 11,000 miles (17,700 km) and a 116-foot (35-meter) wingspan. By collecting information about temperature, pressure, humidity, and location, drones could help to provide more accurate forecasts.
As well as tracking weather, drones can be used to track other aspects of the natural world both on land and underwater. Non profit organisation Conservation Drones is currently working with authorities in Indonesia and Malaysia, collecting data about the resting spots of orangutans. This information will help petitioners to convince the government to stop harmful development projects in national parkland. Using drones is more time and cost efficient than sending human conservationists into the field, especially when tracking dangerous animals in the wild. Even carefully hidden, static cameras can be destroyed by the very animals they’re spying on. That won’t be so much of an issue if the camera is hovering 300 metres in the air.
As with all technology, the aim is to find useful and beneficial applications. As drones are so versatile, they have countless possible applications. At the moment, UAVs are still hindered by flight time, available materials and (excluding the drones purposefully sent into storms) sensitivity to difficult weather conditions. However, as drone technology becomes more robust, they will be put to task in more environments and industries that we haven’t even considered today.